In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, file photo, a man presents his "green passport," proof that he is vaccinated against the coronavirus, on opening night at the Khan Theater for a performance where all guests were required to show proof of vaccination or full recovery from the virus, in Jerusalem. Vaccine passports are being developed in the U.S. to verify COVID-19 immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine.
Brett Sholtis is a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.
(Harrisburg) — Pennsylvania House Republicans voted to prohibit schools and universities from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for students — and to strip the state health secretary from being able to order certain emergency public health measures in the future.
The proposal began as a call in the state Senate to ban so-called “vaccine passports.” However, Senate Republicans added an amendment that would prohibit the state secretary of health from requiring widespread public health interventions such as hand-washing, sheltering in place, wearing masks and social distancing.
Pennsylvania does not require proof of vaccination. Democratic Gov. Wolf’s office says he has no plan to require such proof in the future, though “he believes that private entities/venues/businesses have the right to set their own requirements for entry.”
“The recently added, unrelated amendment is dangerous and would undermine any attempt to protect public health in any circumstance,” spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said. “The governor plans to veto the bill.”
Debate on the bill showed the dueling narratives around vaccine passports — though from the bill’s inception, the meaning of the phrase itself has been up for debate.
Bill co-sponsor state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill of York County pointed to New York’s Excelsior app as evidence of vaccine passports in her memo for the proposal. That state-funded app can make it easier for businesses to see if a person is vaccinated. However, the state does not require that businesses use them or that people be vaccinated.
Other states have set up similar programs to make it easier for businesses to verify vaccination status. Hawaii did require proof of vaccination to travel between islands but recently ended that policy, citing the dropping COVID-19 case numbers. Meanwhile more than a dozen states have banned state-required passports. In many cases, those states had no plans to implement such passports in the first place.
Democratic State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten of Chester County said during debate that despite all the talk about vaccine passports, “they simply do not exist.”
“This is another attempt at misinformation and fear mongering to scare the public and diminish their trust in our government agencies,” Otten said.
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Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York County) is one of several dozen state lawmakers who signed a letter urging members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes going to Joe Biden. Rep. Eric Davanzo (R-Westmoreland County), is one of several dozen state lawmakers who signed a letter asking Congress to object to certifying Pennsylvania’s 2020 election result, despite no evidence that would call that result into question.
These actions supported the election-fraud lie, which led to the attack on the Capitol.
However, some school districts are considering whether to require that students be vaccinated—and several colleges and universities in Pennsylvania are requiring vaccinations for the fall. This bill would prohibit state-affiliated schools from doing so.
Republican state Rep. Eric Davanzo of Westmoreland County said in debate that it’s important to prevent burdensome state control.
“Mr. Speaker, this is not the last time we’re gonna go through a pandemic—but where does it end at?” Davanzo said. “We have a passport for diabetes? We’re gonna have a passport for HIV. When is the end here?”
Republican House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said he was concerned about medical records, pointing to a recent data breach among a state contractor that made personal data publicly available.
“And sadly, being able to protect people’s personal, private health care information is not as easy as when it was in a doctor’s file, or in a cabinet somewhere within a medical facility,” Benninghoff said.
The bill passed the House along party lines. Because the proposal was amended in the House, it must return to the state Senate for another vote before it can reach Wolf’s desk.